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North Korea Special Collection
U.S. Must Rethink North Korea Strategy
An op-ed by Jing-Dong Yuan for The Japan Times.
North Korea's missile test was an affront to South Korea, whose outgoing President Kim Dae Jung had pursued a "sunshine" policy toward the North during his term in office. It is worth remembering that Pyongyang has in the past sought to distract, disrupt and diminish the South's achievements through various tactics out of jealousy, desperation or both. In November 1987, 10 months before the 24th Olympic Games were to be held in South Korea, two North Korean agents planted a powerful bomb on Korean Air Lines flight 858, killing all 115 people on board.
However, the North's defiance and unsolicited provocation this time makes a mockery of Roh's pledge for "peace and prosperity" in inter-Korea relations. It highlights the challenges the international community faces in breaking the nuclear stalemate, and raises serious questions about the strategy the U.S. has pursued in response to North Korea's steadily escalating tactics.
The Bush administration's position since last October's revelation of the North Korean uranium enrichment program has been pressure, isolation and containment. It cut off supplies of heavy fuel to North Korea last December over Pyongyang's violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. It has to date refused to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang, steadfastly upholding the principle that North Korea's intransigence will not be rewarded. Instead, Washington has sought to convince its allies and relevant powers to adopt a multilateral united front to pressure Pyongyang. The administration's expectation has been that under increasing international pressure and isolation, North Korea would buckle under.
The strategy has not worked so far. On the contrary, North Korea has expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, declared its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, reactivated the mothballed nuclear reactor, threatened war if the United Nations Security Council were to adopt a resolution imposing sanctions, and threatened an end to the 1953 armistice.
As the crisis drags on, serious rifts have begun to develop between the United States and its key allies, in particular South Korea, with Roh publicly ruling out any military resolution of the nuclear crisis. While Washington continues to insist that the North Korean nuclear crisis is a multilateral issue that requires a multilateral approach, other regional powers such as China have been reluctant to support the U.S. approach, seeing the only solution as direct North Korean-U.S. talks. Indeed, even if U.S. allies and concerned countries were willing to engage in multilateral diplomacy, Pyongyang would consider none of this as acceptable as direct talks with Washington to obtain security guarantees.
The U.S. has essentially three options for resolving the nuclear stalemate:
For the Bush administration to seriously consider this option, a couple of myths must first be debunked. One reason that the U.S. government is determined not to negotiate with North Korea is that it believes Pyongyang's bad behavior should not be rewarded, and that the regime is untrustworthy.
Granted, these concerns are genuine. But if Washington's ultimate objective is to disarm Pyongyang's WMD programs, it needs to take concrete action rather than continue its stance of inaction or denial. After all, all arms-control agreements must be negotiated and verification measures developed and implemented to make sure that what is agreed to will be abided by.
The other myth is that North Korea has been intransigent all along and therefore not worthy of dealing with. It would be interesting and useful to carefully examine and analyze all official North Korean statements since last October's confession -- there have been suggestions that there have been times that Pyongyang's "offers," coming between otherwise hostile, highly charged rhetoric, have not been picked up by the Bush administration. The U.S. must now consider an alternative strategy before time runs out.
Jing-dong Yuan is a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, California.
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